The Basket is True North

When I launched better than a layup in 2014, I outlined ten laws or principles that undergird the game and define its nature. Since then, I’ve presented detailed essays on the first two.

Time Trumps Territory is appropriately basketball’s first law for it is the cornerstone upon which the remaining laws are built. We learned that basketball is fundamentally a game governed by time, not by the space in which it takes place. We play within the dimensions of the court and are constrained by its boundaries, but we don’t capture territory. Instead, we pass through it and must assault the basket according to timelines established by various clocks: the game clock, the shot clock, and the various “countdowns” employed by the officials to govern different situations of play – inbounding the ball, crossing the half court line, etc. Additionally, we must contend with other forms of time that are not governed by an actual clock: tempo or pace, reaction time or long it takes for one player to react to the movement another player, and rhythm or how well the moving parts of the game are “timed” or in sync with one another.

There are no static lines or fronts in basketball. It’s not a stop-start-stop game during which the offense and defense align across from one another, snap the ball to initiate play, then, do it all over again in a contest to seize territory. Instead, the action is continuous and fluid, the teams seesawing back and forth between offense and defense, the position of the players constantly shifting in relationship to the ball, the basket, and the movement of one another.

And, it is in the midst of that continuous and fluid action that we discovered basketball’s second law, Space Shapes Time. One’s ever-shifting position on the floor in relationship to the ball, the basket, and the other players shapes time, either shrinking or stretching it. Identifying and reacting properly to the angular and spatial relationships between these elements minimizes the disadvantages of the slower players and maximizes the opportunities of the quicker ones. Spacing between players creates avenues to the basket or chokes them off.

In a game of time, characterized by ever changing spatial relationships, coaches and players need a set of navigation tools to help them recognize and make choices quickly. What are the principles by which you read or “see” the game and its myriad of choices? How does one plot the game’s “latitudes and longitudes” accurately? How does one develop “court sense”?

Understanding basketball’s third law – The Basket is True North – provides the navigation tools needed to answer these questions.

Click here to read Basketball’s Third Law

Digging Deeper

At the tail end of last season, Jordan Sperber, analytics guru, blogger, and video coordinator for the New Mexico State University men’s basketball team, penned an insightful reflection on the concept of “offensive balance.”

Rather than retreating to conventional wisdom on the subject – the idealized notion that balanced scoring where everyone shares the ball and no one player dominates is inherently “better basketball” – Sperber dug deeper, revealing that it’s a bit more complicated than what the typical fan may imagine.

Using Loyola Chicago’s inspiring Final Four run as his starting point, Sperber constructed a statistical baseline, charting last season’s the top five scorers for every team in the country and developing a matrix to separate balanced squads from the unbalanced. Continue reading…

Hey, baby, it’s better than a lay up!

Thanks, Dickie V!

While Midnight Madness has already come and gone on many college campuses, today– October 15th– is the traditional start of college basketball and time for me to return to the blogosphere.

Here’s a short list of the topics I’d like to cover in the months ahead. Several appeared on my “to do list” a while back, but I never got around to them; others are additions. In all cases, I hope you’ll find them representative of the tag line for this site, “challenging basketball’s conventional wisdom.” Continue reading…

Sr. Jean’s Scouting Report on Michigan

The following document may prove to be apocryphal, reconstructed by our staff at betterthanalayup.com from note fragments discovered in two Chicago north side watering holes near Loyola University’s lakeshore campus.

The first bits were uncovered by Loyola undergraduates at Bar 63, formerly known as Hamilton’s Bar and Grill; the second, more intact set found in a corner booth at Bruno’s Lounge. Both sites are a close walk from campus and have been frequented by students and professors going all the way back to Loyola’s 1963 national championship days.

Are these fragments the work of Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 98-year-old nun who has been the Ramblers’ team chaplain since 1994?

Impossible to know.

On one hand, it’s hard to believe that a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary would find herself in a neighborhood tavern, yet alone leave her work product behind. On the other, the fragments betray a certain level of scholarly discipline one would expect of a woman religious working at a university, and though largely conversational, the writing tone occasionally reveals a tendency toward “Latinisms” in its rhetorical structure, a style often exhibited at Jesuit institutions.

In any event, regardless of their authenticity, the fragments are incomplete. Many of the critical elements comprising a comprehensive scouting report are either missing altogether or treated in a helplessly cursory manner. Michigan’s out of bounds plays, press attack, occasional use of zone defense as well as its full-court pressure tactics, and the like are not revealed in the fragments. More importantly, only five of Michigan’s players are profiled and the author’s recommended match-ups do not appear. Thankfully, a quick Google search will uncover details about Michigan coach John Beilein’s offensive attack for an interested reader.

Despite these limitations our staff is proud to offer this reconstruction and regardless of Sister Jean’s role in its creation, we join her in shouting, “Go Ramblers!”

Click here to read Sr. Jean Scouting Report.

Space Shapes Time

In a post several years ago – Time Trumps Territory – we explored basketball’s first law. We learned that basketball is fundamentally a game governed by time, not by the space in which it takes place. We play within the dimensions of the court and are constrained by its boundaries, but we don’t capture territory. Instead, we pass through it and must assault the basket according to timelines established by various clocks: the game clock, the shot clock, and the various “countdowns” employed by the officials to govern different situations of play – inbounding the ball, crossing the half court line, etc.

Success in a game like football rests on seizing territory and improving your team’s field position even if you are unable to score during a particular possession. You take control of the field in ten-yard chunks. As you advance the ball across the field toward the goal line you “control” that portion of the field that you have crossed – it’s “behind” you; you “own” it. To improve your position on the field, you may even turn the ball over to your opponent by punting. In effect, you trade a difficult position and an unlikely chance to score for a more favorable location, biding your time until you can regain possession. Football is a chess match over territory.

In basketball there are no static lines or fronts. It’s not a stop-start-stop game during which the offense and defense align across from one another, snap the ball to initiate play, then, do it all over again in a contest to seize territory. Instead, the action is continuous and fluid, the teams seesawing back and forth between offense and defense, the position of the players constantly shifting in relationship to the ball, the basket, and the movement of one another.

And, it is in the midst of that continuous and fluid action that we discover basketball’s second law: Space Shapes Time.

Click here to read Basketball’s Second Law